Buddhist monks and others protest as a Malaysian NGO's aid ship carrying food and emergency supplies for Rohingya Muslims arrives at the port in Yangon on February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun

Although not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Malaysia hosts around 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, more than a third of whom are Rohingya from Myanmar.

While under the protection of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, these people are nevertheless considered pendatang asing tanpa izin (PATI, that is, illegal migrants) by the Malaysian authorities, and therefore subject to arrest, detention and even deportation, although having a UNHCR card may help secure release in many cases.

This aside, there are as many as 50,000 Rohingya yet to register with UNHCR for a variety of reasons, making them vulnerable to all types of abuse, ranging from labor exploitation to re-trafficking.

About a year ago, Prime Minister Najib Razak, confronted by arguably his most formidable political challenge from a resurgent opposition, began to champion the Rohingya cause in an attempt to shore up his support among Muslim Malaysians.

With Anwar Ibrahim in jail, the Malaysian opposition is now under the tutelage of Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who for 22 years ruled the country with an iron fist and tolerated virtually no dissent.

Najib has so far organized at least one massive rally to highlight the plight of the severely persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and allowed two street protests to take place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur without the organizers having to notify the police as would otherwise be required under the much criticized Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012.

In his meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House two weeks ago, Najib is said to have conveyed a message on behalf of the Rohingya and expressed his hope that the United States would play a role in alleviating their suffering.

Najib’s sudden interest in the Rohingya has irked the Myanmar authorities, so much so that they have suspended the policy of visas-on-arrival for Malaysians, making Malaysia the only member of the  Association of Southeast Asian Nations whose citizens need to acquire a visa before visiting fellow ASEAN member Myanmar.

However, it remains unclear to what extent Najib’s proactive stance on the Rohingya will produce a positive effect, especially vis-à-vis his domestic audience.

To the non-Muslims in Malaysia, Najib’s pledge to help the Rohingya is widely perceived to be self-serving, given the fact that his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the linchpin of Barisan Nasional, the multinational ruling coalition, has failed to speak up for non-Muslim refugees facing persecution worldwide, such as the religious minorities in Iraq and Pakistan.

In 2015, the Najib administration deported three Tamil Sri Lankans with the full knowledge that they could be at risk of physical abuse amounting to torture upon return, much to the chagrin of the Tamil community in Malaysia.

Back in 1979, Mahathir, when deputy prime minister, outrageously told the media that the government would not hesitate to shoot on sight boat people from Vietnam.

In 1996, UMNO’s youth wing stormed a public forum in a Kuala Lumpur hotel on largely Catholic East Timor, then under Indonesian occupation, forcing it to be aborted and resulting in arrests and detentions of organizers and attendants. One former UMNO youth leader later confessed he had done it with Mahathir’s blessing.

It is thus clear to all that while Malaysia has demonstrated solidarity with Muslim Palestinian and Bosnian refugees over the years, the same cannot be said of non-Muslim refugees worldwide.

All this, coupled with the fact that decades of UMNO dominance and state policies that favor Muslims in general and Malays in particular, has generated considerable antagonism on the part of non-Muslims.

Just last week, Kuala Lumpur City Hall revoked a permit for an Oktoberfest celebration at a shopping mall under pressure from Islamic conservative forces, despite the fact that only non-Muslims would have been allowed to join the event.

It is seemingly trivial issues and overzealousness like this that make non-Muslim Malaysians increasingly cynical toward the effort by the state to launch a crusade on behalf of “downtrodden” Muslims around the world.

In short, a Muslim champion abroad, and an oppressor at home.

Ever since the latest crisis in Rakhine state broke out, non-Muslim netizens in Malaysia have been highly critical of the announcement by their government to take in more Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, as reflected in their virulent Facebook comments. Many see it as a double standard par excellence, while others are deeply concerned Muslim Rohingya would be used as phantom voters in the general election to be held in less than a year from now, to the detriment of the opposition parties.

Such fears are not without basis, for Mahathir as prime minister once wrested the East Malaysian state of Sabah back from the opposition in the 1990s through what is now infamously known as Project IC, the provision of Sabah identity cards to foreign residents of the state.

Paradoxically, Najib’s Rohingya initiative does not appear to have worked even among the Malays. While the Palestinian cause and the Bosnian Muslim issue in the 1990s aroused enormous sympathies within the country’s Malay community, this time the Muslim response seems to be lukewarm at best.

Perhaps the rising cost of living and a lackluster economy have dampened the zeal for indiscriminate Islamic unity among the Malays, but it cannot be dismissed that the Rohingya, being poorly educated, destitute and dark-skinned, simply do not appeal to Malaysian society at large, unlike Palestinians, Bosnians and, in recent years, Syrians who  have a European-like appearance.

It could also be because the potential number of Rohingya refugees is huge, as compared with the few hundreds of Palestinians, Bosnians and Syrians, most of whom have since found their own way to move to a third country such as Australia, Lebanon or Canada anyway.

After all, those Muslims from Europe and the Middle East have a very different Islamic tradition and experience from those in Malaysia, and they too have a sense of racial superiority of their own.

This is not to deny the fact that, of all the ethnic groups facing state persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingya fare the worst because they are denied citizenship and thus have no access to basic rights such as medical care, education and employment. Nationality is a fundamental right, and a right to receive other rights, without which one is bound to be treated as an outcast, just like the Rohingya in northern Rakhine.

As someone who has spent 12 years working among refugees including Rohingya in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, I welcome Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest statement on the intention of Naypyidaw to recognize some “Muslims in Rakhine state”, although I am more than certain the verification process will be fraught with irregularities and interference from the all-powerful Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military.

Coming back to Malaysia, the government’s ad hoc and inchoate approach to the refugee issue needs a complete rethink, with a view to signing up to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Convention and Protocol on the Status Relating to Refugees. Only then would justice be seen to be done for all who seek refuge in Malaysia, regardless of race, creed, faith and political persuasion.

Last but not least, considering that there are easily half a million Myanmar nationals of various ethnic and religious backgrounds on Malaysian soil doing the jobs that Malaysians shun, the Malaysian authorities must do the utmost to ensure conflicts in Rakhine state and other parts of Myanmar will not spill over to Malaysia.

Josh Hong obtained a bachelor's degree in cultural studies from London Metropolitan University and a Master of Science in international politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. For more than 12 years, he has worked with refugees in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia under United Nations auspices. He resides in Kuala Lumpur.

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